'Brexit will make the job of teaching more difficult'

The Leave campaign has given permission for intolerance and racism in society. This makes schools' role in promoting respect and mutual understanding that much harder, says the former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union

John Dunford

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The Inspiring Leadership 2016 conference was indeed inspiring, but for me it was overshadowed by the murder of Jo Cox, the young MP for Batley and Spen.

The excellent speakers at the conference – Andy Buck on great school leadership; William Hague on the seven things he wished he had known before he started; Zainab Salbi on founding, and leaving, her charity, Women for Women International; Steve Munby on restless leadership; and many more – gave the 1,500 or so school leaders in attendance lots of inspiration and much food for thought.

And yet…after the news came through of Jo Cox’s death, and its potential connection with the arguments about Britain’s place in Europe, it was difficult to think about anything else. Yes, her husband’s amazing, courageous statement and the reaction of MPs across the political spectrum (see, for example, the tribute from Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell) were good to see, but there was no escaping the feeling that this is a bad time for this country.

A much more dangerous world

In his book, Coalition, David Laws tells how colleagues in the coalition government tried to persuade the prime minister of the folly of having a referendum, and of its capacity to unleash negative forces that could not only take Britain out of Europe, but also lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom and even to the disintegration of the notion of European unity, leaving us all in a much more dangerous world. Mr Laws and his colleagues could hardly have imagined then just how awful the referendum campaign would turn out to be.

The nasty, racist tone of much of the Brexit case, supported by most of the popular press, has made its mark, seemingly encouraging people to articulate thoughts that British decency had previously made them keep to themselves. It was great to read Ann Mroz’s powerful editorial in TES, written with her Polish heritage in mind, and concluding: “When we go to the polls next Thursday, it is not for ourselves that we should be voting, but for our children and everyone else’s children. The future is not ours; it is theirs.”

One of my underpinning aims as a teacher and headteacher was to create opportunities for success. British membership of the European Union has undoubtedly increased the opportunities available to the young people of this country, as much as it has to the young people of Poland and the other 26 EU member countries. My fear is that the xenophobic Leave campaign will succeed and decrease those opportunities, making the UK – or what is left of it after Scotland leaves in order to retain its EU membership – into a narrower, less-tolerant place.

Making schools' jobs harder

With the greater perspective of distance, Neal Ascherson has written in the New York Times about how he foresees that “an outward-looking, world-involved Great Britain may soon shrink into a Little England”. I share his fear that “a rump Britain that quits the European Union would not be the same country back in its old familiar place. It would be a new, strange country in an unfamiliar place. For foreigners, it would be less easy-going, more suspicious and more bureaucratic for work and travel. For its own citizens, it would become a less regulated, more unequal society. For the young, as European colour drained away, it could come to seem a dim and stifling place that anyone with imagination would want to escape.” And it will make the job of teaching more difficult.

The 2014 guidance on British values placed a duty on schools to actively promote the values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, which the Department for Education described as the “fundamental British values”. I see no evidence in the Leave campaign of mutual respect and tolerance of those from different backgrounds. It feels as though the Leave campaign and the media support for it have given permission for intolerance and racism in a way that makes the job of schools in upholding those values that much harder.

Fight against hatred

We need to teach young people that diversity is a strength, not a problem; that immigrants contribute an immense amount to this country; that they are valued and respected as much as any other citizen; and that the world is a safer place when countries work together. It will take inspiring leadership of the sort discussed in the plenary sessions, seminars and corridors of the Inspiring Leadership conference last week to counter the negative messages of Nigel Farage and his publicity campaign for Brexit.

While one cannot make a direct connection between the shocking murder of Jo Cox and the tone of the Brexit campaign, it should be her legacy that, in the words of Brendan Cox, we should unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Teachers have a big part to play in that.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education and was formerly a secondary headteacher, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford

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John Dunford

John Dunford is a former headteacher, general secretary of the Associaiton of School and College Leaders and was pupil premium champion from September 2013 to 2015. 

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